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Reading Terrorists' Minds About Imminent Attack 206

An anonymous reader writes "Imagine technology that allows you to get inside the mind of a terrorist to know how, when, and where the next attack will occur. In the Northwestern study, when researchers knew in advance specifics of the planned attacks by the make-believe 'terrorists,' they were able to correlate P300 brain waves to guilty knowledge with 100 percent accuracy in the lab, said J. Peter Rosenfeld, professor of psychology in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences."
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Reading Terrorists' Minds About Imminent Attack

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  • by Bodhammer ( 559311 ) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @11:02PM (#33099128)
    "The thought police would get him just the same. He had committed--would have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper--the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you." - George Orwell, 1984, Book 1, Chapter 1
  • by Bodhammer ( 559311 ) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @11:05PM (#33099136)
    "It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself--anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face...; was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime..." - George Orwell, 1984, Book 1, Chapter 5
  • by Joe The Dragon ( 967727 ) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @11:06PM (#33099140)

    so PRE crime starts now and how do they hope to use this in a jury trial?

  • by Da Cheez ( 1069822 ) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @11:09PM (#33099144)
    "they were able to correlate P300 brain waves to guilty knowledge with 100 percent accuracy in the lab"

    Bet the accuracy wouldn't be so good in a non-controlled, non-laboratory environment. Of course, that wouldn't necessarily stop such a technology from being used, now would it?
  • by gandhi_2 ( 1108023 ) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @11:09PM (#33099148) Homepage

    Relax, citizen!

    You only need a jury if you have something to hide.

  • by line-bundle ( 235965 ) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @11:10PM (#33099150) Homepage Journal

    Why is everything legitimized by putting the word terrorist in it? What does this have to do with terrorism?

    As someone said here on /., terrorism is one of the magic keys, the other being child porn.

  • by Speare ( 84249 ) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @11:12PM (#33099162) Homepage Journal

    Even if this machine can distinguish guilt at 100% accuracy, that's useless. A fake terrorist may feel guilty about what they're doing. A cartoon antagonist is aware of his evilness, because he's from the same mind as the protagonist. In good fiction, the villain shouldn't know they're the villain. In real life, the jihadist doesn't see their tasks as being bad, they feel no guilt about breaking our ethos, because it's not his ethos. He feels adamant that his actions are the true path to righteousness. Why feel guilty about helping God/Allah/Poohbear in the Ultimate Struggle? Do you think the Floridians who want to burn the Quran feel guilt or remorse about what they're doing? Hell no, they feel that the Almighty wants to act through them to purify their little part of the world.

  • by camperdave ( 969942 ) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @11:15PM (#33099178) Journal
    "Without any prior knowledge of the planned crime in our mock terrorism scenarios, we were able to identify 10 out of 12 terrorists and, among them, 20 out of 30 crime- related details,"

    Yeah, 10 out of 12 is 100%. We need to give these guys more money so they can upgrade from their first generation pentiums.
  • by euyis ( 1521257 ) <euyis@inf[ ] ['ini' in gap]> on Saturday July 31, 2010 @11:18PM (#33099192)
    ...terrorists don't have telepathic links with each other, so catching a terrorist and constantly monitoring his mind won't work.
    And I don't think that there're terrorists who don't change their plans, run away, or go into hiding after realizing that one of their teammates was caught. If they're really that dumb and don't flee, they're not going to bomb anything successfully anyway.
  • by CheshireCatCO ( 185193 ) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @11:26PM (#33099214) Homepage

    It's not clear to me that guilt is what's being detected, though. They use the phrase "guilty knowledge", but could mean something that would make them legally guilty or just information that they want hidden. After all, the researcher subjects surely didn't feel guilt for imagining terrorist attacks that they weren't really going to carry out.

    Now, granted, this technique doesn't point to terrorist motives or even anything legally culpable. (It sounds like I might trigger a positive be having any sort of hidden information in mind, including the fact that I'm traveling to Argentina to see my mistress there.) But it might still be quite useful as a way to focus in on some people over others. After all, the major problem of security in a lot of venues is volume of people to be screened. If you can cut that down by a factor of 10 or 100, that helps.

    On the third hand, it's not clear how useful this is, since it involves skin contact right now. Or how many false positives it'll yield in a real setting. If more than half of people have some "guilty knowledge" at any time, yeah, it's useless.

  • by IgnitusBoyone ( 840214 ) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @11:30PM (#33099230)

    I'm instantly skeptical of any study that claims 100%. I need to reread the article again, but they latter talk about 80% in trials so I am not even sure why they boast about a theoretical 100 percent.

  • The good old days (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Reginald2 ( 1859758 ) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @11:49PM (#33099292)
    Where you just racial profiled and tortured... oh wait this wouldn't replace that just be added on top of it.
  • by quixote9 ( 999874 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @12:36AM (#33099452) Homepage
    It sure seems that if they knew the specifics in advance, they could eschew the whole mindreading thing and just get on with stopping the attack. But maybe that's just me.
  • by slashqwerty ( 1099091 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @12:41AM (#33099474)
    It is really easy to achieve a 100% true positive rate. Just accuse everyone.

    The article didn't mention false positives. It would not surprise me at all if this technology would have at least two orders of magnitude more false positives than true positives in the real world. You can't get away from the fact that terrorists are rare so they will be lost in the noise of all the people who are not terrorists.

    Let's say the police go through 50 suspects, none of whom are terrorists. With an 83% accuracy rate the odds of all suspects correctly identifying no targets is 0.83^50 = 8.99 x 10^-5 = 0.00899%. In other words, with just 50 suspects there is better than a 99.99% chance law enforcement would be acting on bogus information. It takes only four suspects before there is better than a 50% chance of acting on bogus information.

    Real world use would likely see results worse than the 83% achieved in the lab.
  • by hol ( 89786 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @12:49AM (#33099496) Homepage Journal

    Never mind those silly details like due process and unreasonable search & seizure . We're talking terrorism here, so it's straight off to room 101 with you.

  • by Voulnet ( 1630793 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @01:45AM (#33099618)
    Stop this make-believe bullshit. The terrorists aren't out to get you every frakking second.
    If you don't want terrorists to attack you, force your government to stop doing whatever you're doing that's provocating their minds everywhere around the world.
    Perhaps start by stopping your video-game and rap music generation kids from wielding deadly weapons against people they don't understand in lands they don't belong to?
  • by beh ( 4759 ) * on Sunday August 01, 2010 @02:27AM (#33099744)

    I just wonder, how they classify guilty knowledge?

    Is it really guilty knowledge of a criminally relevant nature?

    Picture this:

    Interrogator A: Do you know about an upcoming terrorist attack?

    Suspect: No!

    Machine indicates guilty knowledge!

    What the machine doesn't get, the guilty knowledge is actually the suspect having an illicit affair with the interrogator's wife...

    You think the machine can handle the difference?

    Even if the suspect shows a guilty knowledge during the whole test, even on completely irrelevant questions - will the investigator really think it could be guilty knowledge about anything that isn't criminally relevant? ...or maybe, it is about a crime, but not about terrorism? Would the suspect now need to confess to everything (maybe a break-in somewhere), just to prove he/she has a 'good' reason for 'guilty knowledge' that doesn't have anything to do with an impending terrorist attack?

    And - if that were to cover it - what in the case of two crimes - a break-in I committed, and knowledge of an impending terrorist attack. If I can 'show' I was the perpetrator behind a break-in (or even show that I know who was behind the break-in); will the machine still be able to say that there is guilty knowledge about two completely separate things?

  • by blind biker ( 1066130 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @03:34AM (#33099886) Journal

    Our complex, chaotic modern society is already a great environment for psychopaths. Now we're giving them another advantage, with these scanners, which psychopaths will always, under all circumstances, pass with flying colors.

    (An interesting note from Wikipedia: Findings indicate psychopathic convicts have a 2.5 time higher probability of being released from jail than undiagnosed convicts, even though they are more likely to recidivate. []

  • by KDR_11k ( 778916 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @03:35AM (#33099888)

    As long as public indecency is illegal we all have something to hide.

  • by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @04:53AM (#33100072)
    In what way was it better than a polygraph test? Anybody with half a brain or more by now has accepted that polygraphs are fundamentally flawed; yet they are still used, mainly because they serve useful functions other than simply detecting truth. And the agencies using them are aware of this. They use the tests to wring confessions out of people, even when those confessions were made under false pretenses. The list of cases where exactly that has been done, by government agencies, is staggering.

    As others have implied, the incidence of true positives has absolutely no relationship to false positives. This test might in fact -- STILL -- turn out to be completely useless.
  • by ultranova ( 717540 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @05:32AM (#33100166)

    Yes, it's still not a perfect tool, but better than a polygraph test, and that's what they're going for.

    Is it? A polygraph is based on the assumption that someone who lies feels guilty about it, and thus nervous; this seems to be based on the assumption that a terrorist who's killing people in the name of Allah feels guilty about it.

    One little step at a time :)

    Straight to Hell. Or do you really think that this will be limited to terrorists?

  • by maxwell demon ( 590494 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @06:24AM (#33100290) Journal

    Of course that's not useless. False positives in the selected set are okay as long as the true positives are all in the selected set as well -- letting go of a terrorist is bad. Once the event has been resolved, the false positives should be exonerated quite quickly.

    OK, then I've got the ultimate terrorist detector for you. You just point it at a person and press a button, and if the detector finds that person to be a terrorist, a red LED will light up, otherwise a green LED will light up. The device is easy to built: All you need is a button, a green LED, a red LED, a battery and a case with a form that you can meaningfully point at someone. Connect the battery, button and red LED so that the LED lights up whenever you press the button. Put all that and the green LED into the case (make sure the button and LEDs are accessible from outside). Make sure that you do not connect the green LED.

    I guarantee that this device, if built correctly, will have no false negatives (i.e. the green LED will never light up for a terrorist). It will have false positives (the red LED lighting up for non-terrorists), but as you said, you can sort them out later.

  • by mrjb ( 547783 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @06:38AM (#33100322)

    "Imagine technology that allows you to get inside the mind of a terrorist to know how, when, and where the next attack will occur."

    Done. Now imagine spending that money on something that will save more lives more effectively, for example on making the roads safer, rather than on trying to get into people's minds without their consent (or did you really expect terrorists to cooperate)?

  • Re:Define 'guilty' (Score:5, Insightful)

    by maxwell demon ( 590494 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @07:26AM (#33100404) Journal

    and if the device lights up to say that you recognize Bob, then I know you just lied to me.

    No. You have an indication that he lied. Maybe his brother knows Bob, and he has seen him once with his brother but didn't know who he was. Then he was 100% right when he said that he didn't know Bob, but he nevertheless recognized the person on the picture, although he didn't recognize him as Bob, but as the person his brother was talking to. Or maybe he was earlier shown a photo of Bob by another policeman who forgot to tell you about that detail, and he recognized the photo as the same one the policeman had showed him a week ago. Or maybe Bob looks quite similar to John, and he momentarily mis-identified the man on the picture as John, maybe not even long enough for this recognition to get into his consciousness, but long enough for his brain to cause the characteristic pattern of recognizing.

  • by MDillenbeck ( 1739920 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @07:53AM (#33100490)

    From what I am aware, PRE crime is already illegal. Since the P300 test is looking for a response to already encoded information, it means that it is looking for details of a planned crime -which is called "conspiracy" and already carries legal repercussions.

    However, what does concern me is the CSI effect. You know, the one where juries acquit obviously guilty people because of a lack of DNA or other high-tech evidence. If this becomes a standard and legally admissible practice, juries might start requiring P300 tests that they saw on a show like 24 or otherwise they will assume there is insufficient evidence. Conversely, they may convict a false positive merely on the fact that the P300 test says they are guilty.

  • by jsepeta ( 412566 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @08:08AM (#33100532) Homepage

    it's possible that in a lab setting terrorists behave & think differently than out in the wild. the process of being observed may make them nervous.

  • Re:Entropy at work (Score:4, Insightful)

    by retchdog ( 1319261 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @12:50PM (#33101678) Journal

    Information theory is a mathematical science which has been very well tested in its basic principles. It was only by applying principles derived from information theory that our modern communication devices could be developed.

    Yeah, but saying that the p300 "measures" entropy in the brain is pseudoscience of the highest order. It may be true (in some sense, the formulation of which would be highly nontrivial) and it's probably false.

  • And you don't want to wrongly accuse anyone.

    Then why the hell are you calling them "guilty" with 100% certainty. Isn't it up to a judge and jury to call them guilty?

  • Re:Entropy at work (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mangu ( 126918 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @02:27PM (#33102298)

    saying that the p300 "measures" entropy in the brain is pseudoscience of the highest order

    I'm no expert in electroencephalography, but a Google search [] seems to return a number of papers from reputable universities.

    I didn't say the p300 measures entropy in the brain, I said the p300 seems to be a result of the brain measuring entropy in the information it receives from outside. The human brain has to have some mechanism to measure entropy in information, otherwise we wouldn't behave as we do.

    Measuring information entropy is a survival trait. It's what makes us (and all other animals, BTW) behave in an "alarm based" way. Detecting unusual things allows us to escape from predators, find food, and avoid accidents without the need to be constantly evaluating every little unimportant detail around us.

  • by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Sunday August 01, 2010 @07:32PM (#33105084)
    I was not asking how it is "different". I asked how it's "better".

    I suppose that the fact that (today) it appears to be more accurate for a narrow range of stimuli, might be considered better. But it appears to have its drawbacks as well. The experiments seem to reasonably show the effect that they are describing, but it is still very possible that outside the lab, the correlations no longer hold. That is what happened with the polygraph, which seemed so promising at first. But expert polygraph operators have stated that in practice, anybody who knows you well can tell if you are lying just by watching you, better than any polygraph operator ever could. []

    The article states "... when researchers knew in advance specifics of the planned attacks by the make-believe "terrorists," they were able to correlate P300 brain waves to guilty knowledge with 100 percent accuracy in the lab..."

    BUT... in the actual experiment in which they did not have that foreknowledge, they were only able to determine 10 out of 12 "terrorists", and only 20 out of 30 of the plan details. That's not such a good hit rate. Not bad, but not great. You would think that with them crowing about their "100% correlation", they would have at least gotten 12 of the 12 terrorists. The other details would seem to be naturally more difficult, so I am not so surprised there. But in any case, in a simulated real-world scenario, their success was less than stellar. And that's in the lab.

    I believe that in the real world, the success rate would be even lower. Perhaps much lower. Many variables are added to the mix.

    Further, I strongly suspect that it is possible to generate false positives in this equipment, if one knows what they are doing. I do not know that for a fact of course. But I think it would be fun to give it a try.

    Presumably, the students being tested were volunteers who knew little if anything about the nature of what was being studied during the experiment. That is common procedure. But -- as was made clear with the polygraph -- someone who does know what's up might be able to manipulate the results. I would like to see the same kind of test, using people who do know what's going on and who deliberately try to manipulate the results. That would be a much more realistic experiment and I suspect the success rate would be much lower. The only way to know is to try it.
  • by a.a.o ( 1855550 ) <slashdot@arNETBS ... minus bsd> on Monday August 02, 2010 @06:04AM (#33108276)

    So we can detect "planned attacks by the make-believe 'terrorists' ".
    We have a technology to 'read' non-terrorists, who do their best to behave like terrorists.

    So how does this help us to read terrorists who do their best to behave like non-terrorists?

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